Bali COP13 and beyond - the debate on nuclear
at the UN climate change meetings is dead, but does anybody care?
by Gaston Meskens
Looking back at the outcomes of the latest United Nations
climate change conference, in Bali last December, it
would be easy to join forces with the numerous pessimistic
voices complaining about the noncommittal character and
degree of informality of the 'decisions' made by the
political delegations. Indeed, the Bali Action Plan is
essentially 'an agreement on a working agenda' for the
next two years. It aims to launch inclusive negotiations
on the post-2012 period and is scheduled to end in 2009.
Although the wording and the plan itself appear vague,
the word 'inclusive' is important as it indicates that
both the United States and
countries will join around the table, together with the states
that are committed to the Kyoto Protocol. The discussions will
focus on a long-term goal for global greenhouse gas emissions
reductions and on enhanced action on “mitigation”, “adaptation”, “technology
development and transfer” and “finance and investment”.
Finally, the Bali outcome also delivered an agreed text on deforestation,
technology transfer, adaptation and carbon markets.
In addition to the deal’s 'character of
inclusiveness', another aspect might be perceived as positive.
Never in the history of the United Nations Framework Convention
on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations, has a working agenda
been so short-term and detailed. The first post-Bali meeting
of comparable importance in terms of content and international
character is supposed to take place '…as soon as is feasible
and not later than April 2008'1. Truly, going beyond
simple optimism, this way of tackling the issues could well be
seen as a make-or-break
deal. But in whose interest is it? By the time of the next COP
meeting, in Poznan, Poland in 2008, the world will know whether
the Bali Action Plan is a success or a failure.
While there are reasons for optimism about the
way the global talks proceeded, this text reveals a certain concern
about the debate on nuclear within the frame of the climate change
negotiations. Those who are familiar with UN climate change meetings
shrug their shoulders, while others might be shocked to hear
that up until now nuclear has, in fact, never been a subject
of debate or considered part of the official negotiations within
the framework of the global climate change meetings. The well-documented
exclusion of nuclear from the basket of technologies eligible
for the Clean Development Mechanism has mainly been debated on
the fringes of the meetings - in corridors and restaurants around
the conference centre. What’s more, the political delegations
have never made a serious effort to bring the issue to the debating
table in a constructive and open way. To put it straight: after
many years of hushing up the issue in the official negotiations
and an erosion of the quality of the debate on 'content' , one
can say that, since Bali, the debate on nuclear in the context
of international negotiations on climate change appears dead.
The obvious question follows, is it really an issue of concern
for both the political delegates and the nuclear community?
13, around lunchtime, two official nuclear side events
were simultaneously organised within the conference premises.
While the World Nuclear Association organised an event
that focussed on Indonesia's approach to nuclear
in another room at the conference centre, the Heinrich
Boll Foundation (HBF) staged an event entitled Nuclear
energy: myth and reality. The WNA event featured,
among its speakers, the Indonesian Minister for Women Empowerment.
The HBF event presented expert views from Europe,
Australia, Brazil, South Africa and India on 'the role of nuclear energy
in combating climate change', and aimed to present alternatives
based on their observation that '… as nations worldwide
seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear energy is promoted
as a solution to climate change'2.
As the two events were taking place simultaneously
and only a few rooms away from each other, I walked from one
event to the other and back again, just to grasp what was going
at in each event3. I must stress at this point that
I do not want to question or criticise the intentions and professionalism
of the organisers and speakers at both events. Instead, I would
rather present what happened at the events as a metaphor for
the overall state of the nuclear debate at climate change conferences4.
What was interesting about the two events was
that while the pro-nuclear event presented the case of several
countries that have launched or considered launching nuclear,
and promote nuclear technology as a valuable solution to climate
change, the anti-nuclear event focused on the opposite by highlighting
those countries that are phasing out nuclear or claim that it
is a non-option. The WNA event focussed on Indonesia and on other
countries in the East. The HBF event, however, stated that the
situation in Europe is best proof of the fact that nuclear is
no solution because no plants have been ordered in Europe for
decades and countries like Belgium, Sweden and Germany are currently
phasing out nuclear. Finland was presented as 'the exception
that proves the rule'. In addition, the HBF event reported on
cases of 'bad government policy' in Brazil, South Africa and
India that are guilty of '…failing to involve civil society
in a proper way…' in the debate about nuclear. They cite
these examples to support their claim that nuclear offers no
solution to climate change.
Having taken the time to reflect on what happened
there, I would like to make some observations that, I believe,
deserve further analysis and discussion. This text does not allow
time for broader and deeper analysis in order to provide further
evidence to back up my observations, but there will obviously
be more opportunities to do this later.
Summarising (and, admittedly, simplifying) 10
years of nuclear debate within the framework of the UNFCCC one
can observe that the initial irritation and repugnance of the
anti-nuclear lobby in the first years after the Kyoto conference
was followed for many years by indifference and ignorance. The
symbolic exclusion of nuclear from the CDM was regarded by most
anti-nuclear NGO's as the final nail in the nuclear coffin. In
recent years however, the nuclear community has found a new voice
to articulate its message, encouraged by the 'nuclear renaissance'
in the East and the West. During this period the starting point
for the discussion was evidence of the emissions avoidance or
reduction potential of nuclear energy. The focus of the debate
switched roughly from technicalities and arguments about the
risks of nuclear energy to discussions about policy and the economics
of nuclear within the context of a 'climate-friendly' energy
mix. In parallel, outside the UN negotiation rooms, some countries
started to openly “show their hand” by explicitly
favouring or rejecting nuclear in their national energy policies.
As this anecdote shows these themes have been seized upon by
NGO's at UN meetings.
My initial observation is that in international
negotiations such as the UNFCCC conferences or the UN Commission
on Sustainable Development meetings, countries keep on skirting
around the nuclear issue instead of showing willingness to bring
it in out into the open and discuss it in a transparent way.
At the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD1 that took
place in New York in May 2007, the primary focus was on energy.
Participating countries once again failed to take a joint position
on nuclear, not because of ‘the complexity of the issue’,
but because it simply wasn’t discussed. Many countries
(to some degree supported by the EU position) do share the common
view, however, that the responsibility for deciding whether or
not to include nuclear in national energy policies should be
made at the national level. A few months after CSD15 however,
the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) announced that already
16 nations had agreed to sign up for GNEP. Another 22 countries
were candidate partners and observers, making a total of 38 countries
that are somehow involved with GNEP (see Nucnet 2007-10-02).
Other countries that have joined GNEP since then are Canada,
the Republic of Korea and Italy, the latter being one of the
countries that has traditionally spoken out against nuclear at
previous climate change meetings.
Recent developments have clearly
shown that countries refrain from taking a position on nuclear
in the context of international political commitments but do
increasingly show, however, an eagerness to strengthen their
position in the global economy by 'tuning' into international
nuclear research and development programmes. Interestingly, the
initiatives on involving civil society in the siting process
for radioactive waste disposal sites provide further evidence
for this line of thinking. Although it is of course the fundamental
right for local citizens to become (voluntarily) involved in
a proposed siting process, one can observe that participation
remains confined to the local level, instead of enlarged to the
national level, and that the participatory siting process remains
deliberately decoupled from the (nuclear) energy debate.
second observation is that the debate on nuclear 'in the observer
arena' of international political meetings such as those of the
UNFCCC and CSD is hollow and virtually dead (as suggested in
the introduction). It will remain so as long as both 'sides'
make no effort to overcome their polarised positions. I am not
suggesting here that both sides should sit around the table and
talk things through. We all know that this has been tried many
times before, without success. The water that separates the two
is generally perceived to be too deep. Today, the alternative
approach of both sides appears to be to advocate their case by
making reference to (good or bad) political practices, hereby
paradoxically building on positions of countries that fail to
stand up for those positions themselves in official negotiations.
For the observer debate, or the scientific and social debate
in general, the result is that both sides continue 'to talk next
to each other', in Bali this literally meant in adjacent rooms.
By now, the reader might wonder where this story is leading to,
especially in view of what I suggested in my introduction,
one might think that there is no problem at all. Knowing that
nuclear can be competitive in certain conditions companies
will only invest in it if there is a legally binding framework
and if it backed up by stable national political support in
their particular country. In the face of climate change, many
countries show (again) support, which makes mid- to long term
investment (again) interesting. Whether this 'nuclear renaissance'
is a reality or rather a self-fulfilling prophecy of the industry
is a subject of reflection that goes beyond the scope of this
My central thesis here is to point out that
there is a fundamental flaw in the reasoning of many nuclear
communities (advocacy groups, industry and research), their anti-nuclear
opponents and many politicians, including some who are in favour
of nuclear. The flaw has to do with the way civil society should
be 'engaged' in the
of complex risk-inherent
technologies such as nuclear. Today, all policymakers, whether
at industry, research or national and international political
level, see 'societal support' as a prime condition for the justification
of the use of complex risk-inherent technologies in general and
of nuclear technology in particular. Never before, has civil
society been more 'present' in the debate around nuclear than
today. But this is the crux of the problem - its appearance is
basically “virtual”: civil society is present as
a 'subject', not as a partner. It is studied, questioned, psychologically
mapped and categorised, all with the objective of adapting, fine-tuning
and simplifying the information it needs to 'finally understand'
and accept or reject the nuclear option. In all these efforts
'to get the message through', one forgets that the ultimate societal
support may be found by engaging civil society itself 'bottom-up'
in the actual policy process as such: 'joint problem solving'
that should even be preceded by 'joint problem definition'. Instead
of this, communication with civil society and the public at large
is still seen as a 'next step' after round-up of the technology
assessment exercise 'internally'. The result is that the nuclear
and anti-nuclear communities and those politicians who are
in favour of nuclear tend to do their work within their
friendly little circles first, and then 'step outside' in order
to seek acceptance for their 'product'.
Civil society is pre-determined and written
into strategies according to the desired goal. The nuclear community
wants to seek trust and confidence within civil society, but
only by way of providing 'factual evidence' and transparent information
on its activities, and not by inviting it to take part in a joint
justification exercise. The anti-nuclear NGO's, for their part,
see no need to double-check for trust and confidence with civil
society for their activities and messages, as they quite simply
claim to represent it.
for several reasons, we see national politics avoiding to engage
civil society in political deliberation on a national or international
level, both the nuclear and anti-nuclear community now have the
opportunity 'to give a good example'. To make my position clear,
I am not arguing in favour of a broad societal debate on nuclear
because I see this as a way to support nuclear (not as a way
to phase it out), but because nuclear exists as a politico-economical
dynamic that develops outside most citizens’ considerations
and remains separate from any need for joint societal justification.
The situation seems to be one of stalemate.
While the anti-nuclear movements should do a critical self-assessment
in order to find out if and how they actually 'represent' civil
society in their anti-nuclear messages, the nuclear communities
should invite civil society to take part in a justification exercise
of which the outcome might well turn against them. Moreover,
whereas it seems evident that it is not the pro- or anti-nuclear
community that should initiate and organise societal debate,
but that it is the responsibility of national and international
politicians, we do see political dynamics hijacked by politicians’ fear
that they might be transcending their own short-term legislative
commitments and by the very limits that a system of traditional
representative democracy imposes on organising such societal
involvement. Last but not least, to make matters worse, one might
wonder what civil society actually is, and how it can be approached,
organised and engaged in debate in a practical way.
Not surprisingly, there are no clear-cut answers
or readily-available bullet-point recommendations for such a
complex issue. One thing is certain, though, although we have
to take these complexities and limitations seriously, they cannot
be used as an excuse to escape responsibility, whomsoever on
thinks is responsible for what. In addition, even if there were
shared evidence of the need for a broad societal governance process,
the question “why this process should especially be organised
around nuclear, and not for other complex risk inherent technologies
such as genetically modified crops or nanotechnology?” would
have to be asked. The answer is, of course, that these technologies
would also need to be subjected to a fully inclusive governance
The objective of this text was
to raise awareness in a certain way of perceiving the situation,
and to invite feedback and discussion. I dare to conclude by
making another 'simple' statement. We all know it would be naïve
to think we could try and replace the actual politico-economical
rationality that “rules the world” with a new model
of a more emancipated citizenry. There is simply no need to do
so. Business and industry ask 'enabling frameworks' that should
be guaranteed by politicians. It is in the defining and fine-tuning
of these frameworks that civil society could be better engaged
in, and this requires political will as well as motivation from
research and from industry. Consider this: it makes no sense
to organise inclusive reflection on the subject of nuclear energy
outside a broad-ranging and comprehensive energy debate; a debate
that also needs to link with other thematic issues that need
to be tackled 'for the better of society' such as water, climate
change, health and agriculture. Advocates and opponents of nuclear
should accept that the outcome of any inclusive political governance
process could also prove to be a rejection or acceptance of nuclear.
At least the decision will have been supported as robustly as
Finally, it is worthwhile to do an assessment of nuclear technology
'from within'' in order to study aspects of risk perception
and governance, balances of benefits and burdens, responsibilities
towards future generations and interconnections with the possible
or actual misuses of the technology, such as proliferation
and terrorism. The research should anyway be trans-disciplinary
as well as inclusive. For those who might not know, this kind
of research is already being carried out within the nuclear
community, and it remains quite unique. Trans-disciplinary
and inclusive analysis of nuclear can be carried out anywhere
- in universities, in industry communication campaigns, in
learned societies’ working groups and within UN observer
platforms. It costs virtually nothing, as all you only need
is a brain, a certain engaged detachment (or detached engagement)
and a sense of curiosity.
1Decision -/CP.13: Bali Action Plan. See this and other documents
Nations Climate Change Conference COP 13 and CMP 3 Bali, 3-14
December 2007; Daily Programme of 13 December 2007. See unfccc.int/meetings/cop_13/daily_programme/items/4162.php
3Speaking from experience with UN meetings, one could assume that the UNFCCC secretariat,
in coordinating the agenda of side events, did not schedule the two events simultaneously
4Traditionally, also the IAEA organises a nuclear event at every
climate change meeting. While their intention is to take
a neutral and factual stance 'by design',
one can observe that obviously their interventions are perceived as 'pro-nuclear'
by observers and delegates. As the example I give is meant as a metaphor
for more general observations, a reflection on the effect
of the contributions of
the IAEA is beyond the scope of this text.